Vanity Fea

Sir/St Thomas More

Sir / St Thomas More

From The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature, by George Sampson (1972 ed.):


John Fisher (1459-1535), Bishop of Rochester, deserves brief mention in this place, not because he took high rank himself as a humanist, but because he was the means of bringing Erasmus to lecture on Greek in Cambridge (1511-14) at the very time when the university was changing from an ancient to a modern seat of learning.

Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), the associate with Fisher in his tragic death—and canonized with him in 1935—was the pupil of Linacre and Grocyn, the disciple of Colet, the beloved friend of Erasmus, and was the one member of the band of English literary humanists who had a distinct gift of literary genius. At Oxford he became a good Latinist and a fair scholar in Greek. Even when he was a highly successful lawyer with a lucrative commercial practice he lectured on the philosophy nad history of Augustine's City of God. As a member of Parliament he resisted the royal exactions, and was reluctantly drawn into the royal service, in which, however, he rose rapidly, becoming in the end Lord Chancellor in succession to Wolsey. He was the first layman to hold that office. More had no illusions about his royal master, and the end came also as he had foreseen. Having refused to take any oath which denied the Pope's supremacy in matters of faith he was confined in the Tower amid circumstances of spiteful and gratuitous hardship. The humorous serenity characteristic of his life never forsook him, and displays itself in the moving letters to his daughter, Margaret Roper, scribbled on scraps of paper with a piece of charcoal because writing materials had been taken from him. He went to his death in July 1535, jesting with the exexutioner in the act of mounting the scaffold. English history can show few baser acts than the judicial murder of this great and good man. More's literary fame rests on his history of Richard III (see p. 133) and his book universally known as Utopia ("Nowhere"), though he gave it a lengthy Latin title that actually does not include that famous name. It discusses in its few pages many of the problems, interests and activities of its time—political speculation, voyages of discovery, the iniquitous wars and leagues of rulers scrambling for extensions of dominion in Europe, royal indifference to social injustice, the growth of crime caused by lack of employment, and the possibilities of a polity in which health and well-being for all are deliberately sought, in which national service is applied to construction instead of to destruction, and in which a liberal existence is made possible by good-will and toleration. It is interesting to detect anticipations of modern social development in More's imaginary island, but the longest and most valuable part of the book is that which describes, not Utopia, but England. The brief account of Utopia itself is little more than an appended parable. In other words the book is that which describes, not Utopia, but England. In other words the book (like all its later progeny from Swift's Gulliver to Butler's Erewhon and Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four) is mainly a picture of its own time—a criticism of the present rather than a construction of the future. The force of its appeal is attested by the fact that it has added an indispensable word to the world's vocabulary. The book itself illustrates the pleasing internationalism of scholarship, for it was written by the Englishman More in the universal Latin, it received additions from the Flemish Peter Giles, it was revised by the Dutch Erasmus, it was first printed (1516) at Louvain, then at Paris, and then later at Basle, where it was illustrated by two woodcuts from the hand of the German Holbein. No edition appeared in Enalnd or in English until after More's death. Ralph Robynson's translation (1551) has the flavour of the time, but is less exact than later ones made in the seventeenth (Burnet), the nineteenth (Cayley) and the twentieth centuries (Paget, Richards). Utopia is bes read in its own Latin, with a modern English translation. More's other works can be briefly summarized. His verses, English and Latin, are, for the most part, mediocre, but contain some pieces of great merit. They are interesting as revelations of a character at once humorous and serious, prepared foor the best and the worst that life could offer. His translation into English of the Lyfe of Johan Picus, Erle of Myrandula, a greate Lorde of Italy (1510) is a treasury of ideals if not of facts. His controversial tracts, often unpleasing in tone, include A Dyaloge . . . touchynge the pestylent Sect of Luther and Tyndale, the Supplycacyon of Soulys, two parts of A Confutacyon of Tyndales Answere, a long Apology and A Letter against Frith (all c. 1530). More's English writings, first collected by W. Rastell in 1557, with their vivid idiomatic words, their carefully constructed well-balanced sentences, and their modulated cadences exhibit the scholar and the imitator of the Latin classics. Though Utopia was written in Latin, its author was one of the makers of English prose. The sketches of More's life by William Roper and Nicholas Harpsfield set the man before us. The best modern biography is Thomas More (1935) by R. W. Chambers.

[...there are three writers, Sir Thomas More, George Cavendish (1500-61?) and Sir John Hayward (1564-1627), who are scholars and historians rather than mere chroniclers. The History of King Richard the thirde (first printed in Harding's Chronicle, 1543) is properly attributed to More, who no doubt derived his information from the first-hand knowledge of his early patron Cardinal Morton. Its high quality is attested by the fact that the dark and sinister portrait of Richard III drawn in its pages has endured ever since, in spite of vigorous challenge. (....) With [these writers] begins in England the art of history.]

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